Is Thanksgiving Rooted in a Biblical Festival?
Did you know that the first Thanksgiving in the United States has some strong similarities to the biblical Feast of Tabernacles? Although the pilgrims did not consciously observe this biblical feast, it is interesting to study the parallels between these two celebrations that share the common spirit of thanksgiving to God.
Both were celebrated in the autumn in the northern hemisphere, and both were a time for giving thanks to God for the blessings of the harvest season. Although forgotten by many, the American Pilgrims were a deeply religious people whose heritage was strictly founded on the Bible, both Old and New Testament.
Why did the Pilgrims have this strong attraction to the Hebrew Scriptures? Is it a coincidence that the Pilgrims were the first successful colony in New England and were able to set their stamp on American culture and religion? Let’s explore these questions and see what history reveals.
Few realize how solemnly and literally the Pilgrims took the Bible. Jewish sources in particular continue to note, although recognizing there is not a direct link between the two, the striking resemblance of the Thanksgiving celebration to the Feast of Tabernacles, which Scripture also calls the Feast of Ingathering.
Here is one typical opinion: “Sukkot, the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, celebrates the autumn harvest; a similarity to the Thanksgiving holiday observed in the United States which is not coincidental. Prior to making their way to the New World, the Pilgrims, themselves the victims of religious persecution, spent several years among Sephardic Jews in Holland. When they later celebrated the legendary first Thanksgiving, their conscious frame of reference was Sukkot” (“Sukkot,”Cyber-Kitchen.com).
English Harvest Home festival
Now it’s true that the Harvest Home festival was celebrated in England at that time, but among the Pilgrims there was a general rejection of observing these English fall celebrations tainted by pagan traditions.
“The Harvest Home was a holiday,” notes historian Diana Karter Appelbaum, “on which the villagers joined together to bring the last loads of grain from the field and share a merry feast when the work was done…There was sufficient taint of idol worship and evidence of licentious behavior in the old English Harvest Home for Puritans to reject the custom summarily. They recoiled from these remnants of the pagan customs that predated Christianity in England, but memories of the harvest feast lingered all the same.
“The Puritans’ shunning of the ancient Harvest Home left a void in the New England year that might not have been problematic had a similar attitude not been extended to other holidays. But the Puritans had disapproved of so many causes for celebration that a holiday vacuum existed in the young colonies. ‘All Saint’s Day’ had been swept off the calendar along with Christmas and Easter, on the grounds that these mixed ‘popish’ ritual with pagan custom.
“Sunday, the occasion in Europe for afternoon ball games, cockfights, plays, gambling, fishing trips and dances, became the Puritan Sabbath, a day passed in prayer, church attendance and devotional reading…Remaining to New Englanders were three holidays—Muster Day, Election Day and the day of the Harvard Commencement” (Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, an American History, 1984, p. 20).
Biblical connection of Thanksgiving
So it seems the Pilgrims didn’t base their Thanksgiving celebration on English feasts, which when linked with pagan customs were generally shunned by them. Where then did they get their inspiration for Thanksgiving? Could it have a biblical foundation?
Notice what David Stern says about the Feast of Tabernacles in The Jewish New Testament Commentary: “Families build booths of palm branches, partly open to the sky, to recall God’s providence toward Israel during the forty years of wandering in the desert and living in tents.
“The festival also celebrates the harvest, coming, as it does, at summer’s end, so that it is a time of thanksgiving. (The Puritans, who took the Old Testament more seriously than most Christians, modeled the American holiday of Thanksgiving after Sukkot [the Hebrew name for the Feast of Tabernacles])” (1996, comment on John 7:2 John 7:2Now the Jew’s feast of tabernacles was at hand.
American King James Version×).
This connection is not well known among most secular U.S. historians, but the Jews, who also arrived very early at the New England colonies, have kept track of this historical parallel.
“As Leviticus 23 teaches,” explains Barney Kasdan, “Sukkot was to be a time of bringing in the latter harvest. It is, in other words, the Jewish ‘Thanksgiving.’ In fact, it is widely believed that the Puritan settlers, who were great students of the Hebrew Scriptures, based the first American Thanksgiving on Sukkot” (God’s Appointed Times, 1993, p. 92).
William Bradford, who became the first Pilgrim governor and proclaimed the first Thanksgiving celebration, used the Scriptures—both Old and New Testaments—for guidance in governing the colony.
“Though it’s a uniquely American tradition,” adds a Jewish Web site, “the roots of Thanksgiving go back to ancient Israel. In a real sense, the Jews invented Thanksgiving. I count 28 references to the word thanksgiving in the King James Bible—all but six in the Old Testament. For the ancient children of Israel, thanksgiving was a time of feasting and fasting, of praising God, of singing songs. It was a rich celebration—and still is for observant Jews today.
“Bradford himself studied the Hebrew scriptures. The Pilgrims took them very seriously. The idea of giving thanks to God with a feast was inspired by that knowledge of the Bible. In a very real way, the Pilgrims saw themselves, too, as chosen people of God being led to a Promised Land…
“In addition to proclaiming a day of thanksgiving, like the ancient Hebrews did before them, Bradford and his flock also praised God’s loving kindness, the famous refrain of Psalms 106 and 107 and Jewish liturgy (‘Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, for His kindness endures forever’)” (“Thanksgiving, The Puritans and Prayer,” shalomjerusalem.com/heritage).
Brief history of the Pilgrims’ journey
It’s fascinating to review the Pilgrim’s history and their roots in America.
Attempting to reform the Church of England, the Puritans wanted to base their religion purely on biblical teaching—both from the Old and New Testaments. In England, they pressured the government so much to establish its laws on biblical principles that they provoked the ire of King James I of England. “King James vowed to make these deviants conform or he would ‘harry [harass] them out of the land or else do worse'” (Martin Marty, Pilgrims in Their Own Land, 1984, p. 59).
So a group of Puritans fled from England and sailed to Holland. There they enjoyed more religious tolerance, but eventually became disillusioned with the Dutch way of life, believing it was ungodly and that it had a corrupting effect on their children.
A number of these Puritans, seeking a better place to practice their religion, began to set their sights on America. They finally negotiated with a London stock company to finance a journey to the New World.
They sailed from Holland to Plymouth, England, and from there to the new Plymouth they would reach after more than two months at sea. They dropped anchor at Cape Cod in November of 1620. Only about half of the original colonists were true Pilgrims. The rest, whom the Pilgrims called “strangers,” were hired to protect the company’s interests.
The Pilgrims finally disembarked at Plymouth Rock on Dec. 11, 1620. Their first winter was devastating. At the beginning of the following autumn, they had lost 46 of the original 102 who sailed on the Mayflower. But the harvest of 1621 was bountiful and the Pilgrims decided to celebrate with a feast—inviting Native American Indians who had helped them survive their first year. Historians believe that the Pilgrims would not have made it through the year without the help of the natives. The feast lasted three days.
The fledgling Plymouth colony of Puritans would not be the exception to the rule. Over the next 20 years, 16,000 Puritans would migrate from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and many more settled in Connecticut and Rhode Island—thus establishing a lasting influence on American culture and character.
The Pilgrims’ view of themselves
How did the Pilgrims view themselves?
“The Puritans in England,” writes Jewish historian Max Dimont, “regarded themselves as Hebraists. They took the Old Testament as their model of government and tried to reshape the Magna Carta in its image…The British rulers rightly regarded them as Jewish fellow-travelers, and when they departed for the Colonies, the British ruling class wrote them off as good riddance.
“In America, the Puritans modeled their new homeland upon Old Testament principles. When Harvard University was founded in 1636, Hebrew along with Latin was taught as one of the two main languages. Governor Cotton wanted to make the Mosaic Code the law of Massachusetts, and Hebrew at one point almost became the official language of the state” (The Indestructible Jews, 1971, p. 346).
In the preface to his History of Plymouth Plantation, Governor Bradford wrote of his strong desire to learn Hebrew: “Though I am grown aged, yet I have had a longing desire to see with my own eyes something of that most ancient language and holy tongue, in which the Law and the oracles of God were written and in which God and angels spoke to the holy patriarchs of old time . . . My aim and desire is to see holy text, and to discern somewhat of the same, for my own content” (p. xxviii, edited by Samuel Eliot Morison, 1989).
These remarks were followed by some 25 biblical passages in the original Hebrew and their English translation.
It is no accident that the early settlers called their Plymouth Colony “Little Israel,” and they even compared Governor Bradford to Moses. They felt that they had fled lands of oppression and had found a new home, just as the Israelites had once fled Egyptian slavery and settled in the Holy Land.
It is, then, understandable from the association the Pilgrims had with the Bible and the traditions of Israel, that their Thanksgiving festival would be patterned after the biblical festivals of thanksgiving for abundance and harvest as found in the Bible—in particular, during the fall, the Feast of Tabernacles.
Again, this is not saying there is an explicit link here, just a biblical framework for the Thanksgiving celebration to arise.
Similarities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony
Just north of the Pilgrims’ colony of Plymouth, where the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1629 mostly by Puritans, we see a similar pattern.
“No Christian community in history,” says Gabriel Sivan, “identified more with the People of the Book than did the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed their own lives to be a literal reenactment of the biblical drama of the Hebrew nation.
“They themselves were the children of Israel; America was their Promised Land; the Atlantic Ocean their Red Sea; the Kings of England were the Egyptian pharaohs; the American Indians the Canaanites (or the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel); the pact of the Plymouth Rock was God’s holy Covenant; and the ordinances by which they lived were the Divine Law. . .
“[They] saw themselves as instruments of Divine Providence, a people chosen to build their new commonwealth on the Covenant entered into at Mount Sinai” (The Bible and Civilization, 1973, p. 236).
Puritan laws in America
What kind of laws was the United States founded on?
“In England,” writes Abraham Katsch, “the Puritan identification with the Bible was so strong that some Puritan extremists sought to replace English common law with biblical laws of the Old Testament, but were prevented from doing so. In America, however, there was far more freedom to experiment with the use of biblical law in the legal codes of the colonies, and this was exactly what these early colonist set out to do.
“The earliest legislation of the colonies of New England was all determined by Scripture. At the first assembly of New Haven in 1639, John Davenport clearly stated the primacy of the Bible as the legal and moral foundation of the colony.
“‘Scriptures do hold forth a perfect rule for the direction and government of all men…The Word of God shall be the only rule to be attended unto in organizing the affairs of government in this plantation'” (The Biblical Heritage of American Democracy, 1977, p. 97).
Notice how influential were the Old Testament principles in their civil government.
“Subsequently,” adds Rabbi Ken Spiro, “the New Haven legislators adopted a legal code—the Code of 1655—which contained some 79 statutes, half of which contained biblical references, virtually all from the Hebrew Bible. The Plymouth Colony had a similar law code as did the Massachusetts assembly, which, in 1641—after an exhortation by Reverend John Cotton who presented the legislators with a copy of Moses, His Judicials—adopted the so-called ‘Capitall Lawes of New England’ based almost entirely on Mosaic law” (WorldPerfect: The Jewish Impact on Civilization, 2002, p. 248).
Much to be thankful for
So we should not forget that Thanksgiving is a feast of giving thanks, not only for receiving God’s blessings today, but also for how He founded America mostly on His biblical laws. He also poured Abraham’s blessings on it, intervening time and time again from its very beginnings to turn it into a rich and powerful nation to help lift up the rest of mankind. The nation has not had a perfect record, of course, but it is still trying to defend the weak from oppressors and to provide a home for those being persecuted.
I know—for I am one of those who was persecuted and was received in the United States with open arms—a gesture for which I will be forever grateful.
Also, we should consider that the biblical Feast of Tabernacles is an annual reminder of how we should thank God for all He has done for us. Indeed, Jesus Christ and His disciples celebrated this festival—and I hope one day you will join us in observing it. GN
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